Review: Nat Geo’s ‘Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown’

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It’s odd to say the true crime genre has “fans.” But TV shows like Dateline and podcasts like “Crime Junkie” and “My Favorite Murder” continue to dominate the charts, speaking to society’s fascination with the morbid.

In 1978, Jim Jones established a cult in Guyana, under the guise of creating a utopian society. He called it The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, but it’s better known colloquially as Jonestown. Jones quickly obtained influence by telling the Guyanese government how beneficial his community would be for their country. However, Jones was as sneaky as he was persuasive, spying on citizens, forcing them to do manual labor, and then attend lectures on his beliefs at night. He broadcast his version of the news over the Jonestown’s speakers and referred to the United States as an imperialist villain and an evil capitalist society and praised leaders like Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin. After concerned relatives reached out to the US government, California congressman Leo Ryan went to check up on the community with journalists, camera operators, and concerned family members in tow. Some Jonestown citizens attempted to leave, but Jones called them back over the loudspeakers and encouraged them to commit “revolutionary suicide” in defiance of capitalism, goading them to drink poisoned Flavor Aid (similar to Kool-Aid, as this is where the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” originated). A total of 918 people died, including children poisoned by their own mothers, in addition to Congressman Ryan and members of his delegation.

Nat Geo’s new three-episode documentary, Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, dives deeper into the history of the circumstances and interviews survivors of the tragedy. Interspersed with their stories is archival footage, which at times is unsettling to watch knowing how everything ends. It may be triggering for some viewers, as interviews with the eyewitnesses are very emotionally charged and visceral, with some discussing their guilt of surviving the massacre when their families perished.

The series doesn’t shy away from the dark truth but still drives the point home that the subjects were victims of Jones’s unhinged beliefs, not necessarily weak and impressionable pushovers. Despite happening almost 50 years ago, it’s the type of story that feels relevant to today. It would be easy to dismiss Jonestown as something that could never happen again due to technological advancements and general awareness, but crucially, cults do still happen: Hulu recently released a documentary called Stolen Youth, following the cult of Sarah Lawrence College in 2010, and Smallville’s Allison Mack was arrested in 2018 after she was involved with NXIVM, proving Cult Massacre’s applicability and pertinence to today.

While it’s clear true crime is here to stay, it’s important not to get desensitized to the awful realities involved. These are real events that happened to real people, and the show impressively toes the line of telling the truth without being exploitative and without feeling like it was made solely for audience entertainment. It’s hard to watch, but in doing so, audiences are taken on a valuable journey and one that could and should be a blueprint for future true crime documentaries.

Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown premieres on Nat Geo and Hulu on June 17. Watch a trailer below:

Haylee Fisher
Haylee Fisher
Haylee has loved writing since she was 8 years old, when she would sit in front of the TV handwriting (see: doodling) recaps of shows such as The Munsters, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. She started writing for Nerds and Beyond in September 2023. She previously wrote for Nerd HQ for over five years where she had the honor of interviewing celebrities including author Andy Weir, actor Zachary Levi, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and many others. When not writing, you can find her reading or binge-watching her favorite shows. Current fandoms include Roswell, New Mexico, and Our Flag Means Death. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @haylee_fisher

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